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Casas Isabella Apartments: Boring stucco boxes get a little character thanks to 'building whisperer'

July 6, 2011 |  6:00 am

Isabella-side-LR Curiosity for Rent: Casas Isabella Apartments

What to do with a trio of rather gray apartments wedged along Hillhurst Avenue in Los Feliz?

Dress them up as Christopher Columbus’ famous three sailing ships: the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa Maria.

That may not have been your first choice. But designer Gene Bramson felt the buildings didn’t “visually own” Hillhurst Avenue. And as a “building whisperer” (more on that later), Bramson said the property ached for a vivid personality. 

“This gives them a bit of an identity and Spanish character,” said Bramson, head of Los Angeles-based Bramson & Associates.   “I suppose it could have been the Three Stooges or the Three Pigs, but this just felt right.”

As  a merged compound, the three buildings pay homage to Queen Isabella I of Castile, who financed Columbus’ galleons in 1492. Bramson thought that the theme, partly executed using signage, unified the buildings so they felt like a destination, not just an address.

Bramson hired a metal worker rather than a professional signage firm to create the shield-shaped signs that hang from each building.

“He hand-lettered them, and I thought it came out brilliant,” Bramson said. “I wanted something you might see on a cobblestone street in Madrid -- authentic, not slick.”

Isabella-nina-LR Isabella-pinta-LR Isabella-maria-LR Each of the three buildings was further delineated with color palettes to highlight architectural details:  tan for Nina, salmon for Pinta and pale yellow for Santa Maria. Other improvements: scrolled metal work and new canopies for windows, as well as cartouches that frame acanthus leaves on each end building --  placed starboard and aft.

Bramson's involvement dates to 2003, when new owners of the Hollywood Hills Apartments company bought the 10-unit Hillhurst buildings.

“Gene is great, and matches our purpose to bring out the true character of properties,” says Jeff Scapa, who owns Hollywood Hills Apartments with Bill Silverman. “Those buildings were neglected and worn down before Gene looked at them.”

Bonnie Botero has lived in the Santa Maria building for 13 years with her dachshunds Spanky and Cosmo.  “A lot of writers, actors and students live here,” said Botero, who works as a Los Angeles Police Department crime scene photographer.  “Friends think it’s funny, but they have no problem finding me.” 

As for being a building whisperer, Bramson admitted that "it sounds nutty."

"But buildings do talk to me. I felt the three Hillhurst properties wanted to look more important, larger than life. The Spanish look also creates a village feel that’s right for Los Feliz."

The genius in Bramson’s execution may be that its quirky theme doesn’t commandeer the neighborhood. Walking along the shop-lined street, which includes the popular restaurants Alcove and Home, you might even miss the concept, but probably not the charm.   

The Crown of Castile would be proud. 

-- R. Daniel Foster

Isabella-before Isabella-after

Casas Isabella Apartments before the change, left, and the buildings today, right.

"Curiosity for Rent," a series on the novel apartment buildings of Southern California, appears here every Wednesday. You can send nominations to daniel@rdanielfoster.com. For an easy way to follow future installments, join our Facebook page for California home design.

Photos: All by R. Daniel Foster, except the "before" photo by Gene Bramson